A Shop in the park

Little Shop of Horrors at American Stage

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Like all the children of Lake Wobegon, Little Shop of Horrors (book and lyrics by Howard Ashman, music by Alan Menken) is above average. This isn't meant to be faint praise; I'm just trying to be accurate about a show that, for all its charm, doesn't really deserve any superlatives.

The text of Shop is pleasantly original, the songs pleasantly inventive, the acting pleasantly campy — and one leaves Demens Landing at the end of the evening with a mildly satisfied feeling and exactly nothing more.

But maybe that's American Stage's intention in taking Shakespeare out of the park and putting a show like Little Shop in: to draw crowds with an inoffensive, unchallenging good time. This is the kind of show you can go to with your grandmother and your 10-year-old: It's silly and meaningless and a fun couple of hours, more human than a video game and not as noisy as Chuck E. Cheese. If you're looking for a moderately enjoyable couple of hours, this is your harmless cup of tea. Bring a blanket and some chow and take a rest from your crazy life.

The setting of Little Shop is Mushnik's Skid Row Flower Shop, a failing business on the verge of nonexistence. Running the shop is grumpy Mr. Mushnik, a paunchy complainer who's just coming to understand that location is everything. Working for him are Seymour, an earnest but bumbling nerd, and Audrey, a tall platinum blonde with self-esteem issues and a sadistic dentist boyfriend who regularly knocks her around. (She claims she deserves it).

Secretly, Seymour's in love with Audrey; not so secretly, Mushnik has decided to close the shop. But first he takes Audrey's suggestion and puts Seymour's strange new plant — an unusual sort of flytrap that Seymour's dubbed "Audrey II" — in his shop window. Immediately it attracts a customer, who buys $100 worth of roses. And that's just the start of a great reversal of Mushnik's fortunes.

Still, there's something Seymour's not telling anyone: Audrey II feeds on human blood. As the plant grows to enormous proportions, it literally tells perplexed Seymour that it wants a live human victim. Seymour resists at first, but eventually turns murderous toward Audrey's vicious boyfriend. And so begins the hungry plant's reign of terror. Will its thirst for human sacrifice ever be sated? And will the human, self-doubting Audrey ever accept Seymour's love?

As plots go, this one is certainly above average — and so are the various features that keep us entertained. Most important is the plant itself, which starts out small and realistic, and then is replaced by bigger and more ridiculous versions until it's literally big enough to swallow a man — or woman — whole.

It's not often that a prop is the best thing in a show, but Audrey II is just that: fun to look at (imagine the largest stuffed item in all of Toys "R" Us), fun to hear (voice by the talented Sharon E. Scott), and especially fun to watch at feeding time.

Rivaling the plant for our easy laughs is the mere idea of dentist-as-sadist. After all, what professionals in modern life are more frightening than the people who attack our teeth and gums with sharp instruments every few months?

And then there are the songs, which are tuneful (without being particularly memorable), and offer witty, unpredictable lyrics. For example: Audrey II tells Seymour that she can get him "everything your secret, greasy heart desires:" "Would you like a Cadillac car?/ Or a guest shot on Jack Paar?/ How about a date with Hedy Lamarr?/ You gonna git it!"

Or when human Audrey is dreaming about a housewife's life in the suburbs: "He rakes and trims the grass/ He loves to mow and weed/ I cook like Betty Crocker/ and I look like Donna Reed." The acting is as cute as can be in every case. As Mushnik, Joe Parra is a grumbling, grousing teddy bear with a Yiddish inflection and a heart of soft gold. Joey Panek as Seymour is a clumsy romantic whose love for Audrey I isn't troubled by any curiosity about her past and whose usually healthy conscience keeps getting in the way of Audrey II.

Then there's Kelly Aktins as human Audrey, a ditzy blonde right out of Born Yesterday, Some Like It Hot and a slew of other pre-PC movies. Christopher Swan, who keeps turning up in American Stage shows (and always does a fine job) is sufficiently funny as dentist Orin, whose dream is to excavate cavities with a drill that's rusty and dull. And then there's the girl group of Crystal, Ronnette and Chiffon — Katti Christopher, Sara Delbeato and Terri Crymes — which had such microphone trouble during the preview I saw that I could barely make out what seemed to be cheerful '50s melodies.

The delightful Sharon E. Scott was easy to hear as the voice of the Plant, though, and Charles McKenzie, as the person in the body of this oversize menace, did his simple job unobjectionably.

Director Steven Flaa has commendably insisted that his actors find the caricature in every character, and the set by Todd Olson and John Malolepsy — flowers and a counter for the shop, a dentist's chair for Orin's office — is neither spectacularly attractive nor particularly problematic. Emily Smith's costumes are equally unobtrusive.

And "unobtrusive" is the word for this entire exercise. Little Shop plays it safe from first moment to last, pleases without challenging, earns a few laughs and a lot of smiles. I can't find any terrible faults in the show, but there's not a whole lot to recommend it either.

Has it made me stop missing the days of Shakespeare in the Park? Not really. But I'll be interested to know the box-office figures at the end of the run. Maybe this is, after all, the sort of thing the outdoor theater crowd prefers.

Audrey II turned Mushniks' Flower Shop into a busy, prosperous enterprise. Now we'll see if she does the same for American Stage in the Park.

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